U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner put Colorado on the national stage Monday as he argued on the Senate floor for money for nation's national parks in bill he authored, the Great American Outdoors Act.
"Now is the time to invest in our recreation infrastructure. Now is the time to invest in this job opportunity," the Republican from the Eastern Plains argued. "You know prior to the pandemic, we were living in the midst of one of the greatest economies the world has ever seen. Unemployment was at record lows, wages were growing, and people were spending their hard-earned dollars in our communities supporting local economies, fishing, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors after spending three months in the great indoors.
"Our mountain towns and gateway communities were hit hard by COVID-19; the first wave decimated economies in our Western Slope of Colorado. The ski season ended early, restaurants closed and hotels emptied. The jobs that are created and sustained by this bill as we recover from the pandemic will be a vital component of our overall economic recovery, as Americans get back to work and back to playing after they've worked so hard. Working hard and playing hard, two great American values."
The bipartisan bill is also carried by Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.
Chief among its benefits is it would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the pot of money for federal lands paid for by leases on oil and gas drilling.
The Senate voted on Monday to begin considering the bill.
Sen. Michael Bennet's office noted that the Democrat from Denver has worked for years to get such legislation through.
The senior senator from Denver has led or co-sponsored six previous attempts to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund since he took office in 2010.
He joined with Gardner in introducing the bill in March.
“I hope that this is the start of something that our children and grandchildren can look back on and thank us for," Bennet said in a statement then.
You can watch Gardner's Monday address by clicking here.
His office provided his remarks as delivered:
I want to thank the senator from Washington for her leadership on our great public lands and the bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, that we will be voting on this week and debating into next week. What an historic occasion for the United States Senate. We don't often have the chance to make history. This week we do. So thank you to the Senator from Washington.
June is of course the Great Outdoors Month. Since 1998 when President Clinton started with one week of Great Outdoors Week, it has since expanded and has been observed every year beginning with those Great American Outdoor Weeks in 1998 to the entire month of June, celebrating that we do today.
This week we're debating landmark legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act, that brings two ideas together that have been worked on by so many of my colleagues in this chamber for so long. I introduced this legislation with Senator Manchin, along with so many other bipartisan champions for the outdoors and our great public lands and spaces.
The Great American Outdoors Act combines $1.9 billion a year, for five years for deferred maintenance at the National Park Service, the United States Forest Service, The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, which is now headquartered in Grand Junction, Colorado, and the Bureau of Indian Education schools, and permanent annual funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the crown jewel of our conservation programs, at $900 million per year.
Let's revisit how we arrived at this historic moment. Last year the Senate came together in bipartisan fashion and passed the most significant conservation measure in over a decade. The John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation Management and Recreation Act, among other things, included the permanent authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress had established the LWCF in 1965 with the idea of using revenue generated from offshore energy development to fund improvements on public lands at no cost to the taxpayer. I'll repeat that again, at no cost to the taxpayer.
The LWCF has increased access for Americans everywhere to hunt, to fish, to camp, and enjoy recreation activities on their public lands, the land that we own and hold as a country. It has protected and expanded access for conservation in all 50 states, the territories, and in nearly every county. LWCF is the crown jewel, as I said, of our nation's conservation programs. It has broad bipartisan support.
Yet for decades, short-term authorizations and uncertain funding levels hampered the ability of the conservation community to come up with the long-term plans that we need to protect our most cherished landscapes. The John D. Dingell Conservation Management and Recreation Act took care of one of those problems. We actually managed to solve a problem, but it was just half of the picture. The permanent reauthorization of the program guaranteed the full $900 million authorization would be set aside every year going forward. We won that fight together, we passed that legislation.
But the fight for fully funding the program continued, and while I’m appreciative of the ever-increasing levels of funding we have successfully fought to secure, in fact we've seen some of the highest funding over the last year or two years we've seen in over 15 years, we've successfully fought to secure in the Senate, it's still not what was agreed to, still not what was agreed to when this program was created in 1965.
The Great American Outdoors Act fixes this issue. It guarantees that the full $900 million that is sent in to the LWCF Trust Fund are spent every year and not diverted for other purposes.
I'd like to share some of the landscapes in my home state that LWCF has preserved for the public and generations to come. You can see this picture, this incredible, awesome, majestic landscape of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It’s located in the approximately 122 mile long San Luis Valley, in Southern Colorado. The dunes in the park are the tallest dunes found anywhere in North America. And right now, people are visiting to experience the seasonal flow of Medano Creek, which forms in front of the dunes as snow melts in the spring and early summer. It’s the closest thing we see to beach front property every spring at the sand dunes. And as you can imagine, the ecosystem in this area is incredibly delicate.
You see, the sand dunes are here because of basically the hydrostatic charge created from the groundwater when it comes to the sand particles. It's that water that forms around the sand that holds the sand dunes in place. Without the water underneath it, the sand dunes just blow away, and they're not there. The sand dunes sit next to what are some of the important wetlands in the state of Colorado. LWCF funds were used to protect those wetlands and to facilitate a transfer to an existing refuge while also helping to protect the dunes. LWCF was able to protect the lands that protected the water that keeps the dunes in place.
In Northwestern Colorado, we’ll go to the next picture, a ranch sits along the banks of the Yampa River, which flows into Cross Mountain Canyon, then downstream to Dinosaur National Monument. And if you have ever been to Dinosaur National Monument you know what an incredible treasure that is. It straddles the states of Colorado and Utah.
The Cross Canyon run is one of the best whitewater rafting trips in the state. And if it's one of the best whitewater rafting trips in the state, you can guarantee that it makes it one of the best in the country because of what we have to offer in Colorado.
There is also a very healthy elk population that facilitates seasonal hunting, and obviously the fishing is great as well.
But throughout this area of public land, through both the monument and lands under the Bureau of Land Management and private land, access to our public lands is difficult for those that travel to this area of Colorado from all over the world to hunt, to fish, to raft, and more.
With a small amount of LWCF funding through the Forest Legacy Program, which we also fund through LWCF, the ranch on the banks of the Yampa River was able to enter into a conservation easement. This protected and enhanced access to tens of thousands of surrounding acres of federal lands.
You see, we not only have the opportunity to continue protecting our public lands, but there's public lands that we don't have access to because you can't get to it. So utilizing a program like the Land and Water Conservation Fund helps the American people have access to what they already hold.
In Southwestern Colorado, we'll go to another successful Forest Legacy Program project that protected vital wildlife habitats and a watershed that provides water to thousands of people. The Sawtooth Ranch is visible from the San Juan skyway, one of the most spectacular places on God’s Earth, one of 31 designated scenic all-American roads. It is also visible from Mount Snuffles, one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners.
Outdoor recreation of every kind takes place in the area next to the ranch to support the local economy and the protection of the ranch has helped facilitate even greater opportunities.
Federal lands like the ones I’ve shown you are incredibly popular destinations for tourists from all over the world, as well as recreation enthusiasts.
In 2019, Rocky Mountain National Park was the third most visited national park in the country. 4.9 million people visited the park last year, setting a new record. And just a decade prior to that, in 2009, you think about this, that was 4.9 million people in just the last year, in 2009 that visitation number was only 2.8 million a year.
The explosion in visitation numbers is not contained just to the lands maintained by the National Park Service. The entire federal land system is supporting a recreation economy that has become a major economic powerhouse because as more people go to places like Sawtooth Ranch, as more people go to places like Rocky Mountain National Park, they're pushed out to other areas, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. They’re pushed out to the north sand dunes, the BLM land and more use, and more use, and more opportunity.
But federal investment in the infrastructure that supports these great landscapes and the recreation economies they facilitate has not kept pace, and we know that, has not kept pace with the use of the lands.
In Colorado, that translates to the third-most visited national park in the country, which saw 4.9 visitors last year, having an $84 million maintenance backlog. In total, Colorado’s units managed by the National Park System have a $247 million backlog, backlog of deferred maintenance needs.
The Forest Service in Colorado has an astonishing $325 million maintenance backlog. When you think about that pattern repeated on federal lands and in our parks across 49 other states, you begin to understand how we arrived at a system-wide $20 billion backlog.
The Great American Outdoors Act will provide an annual funding level of $1.9 billion over the next five years to a restoration fund, for which money can be used solely for those deferred maintenance projects. And this is all paid for, it's all paid for, by revenues associated with onshore and offshore energy development.
This will allow the land management agencies to address highest priority projects to bring our outdoor recreation economy into the 21st century for the enjoyment of the 22nd, the 23rd, and 24th centuries of this great nation.
And the 21st century of course is where it needs to be and where we start. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, hunting, fishing, camping, paddling, and other outdoor recreation activities contribute to a total of $778 billion annually to the economy and support 5.2 million American jobs.
This sector accounts for 2.2 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Each year our federal lands, our federal public lands contribute nearly $60 billion to the American economy and support more than 400,000 jobs.
Now is the time to invest in our recreation infrastructure. Now is the time to invest in this job opportunity. You know prior to the pandemic, we were living in the midst of one of the greatest economies the world has ever seen. Unemployment was at record lows, wages were growing, and people were spending their hard-earned dollars in our communities supporting local economies, fishing, hiking and enjoying the great outdoors after spending three months in the great indoors.
Our mountain towns and gateway communities were hit hard by COVID-19, the first wave decimated economies in our Western Slope of Colorado. The ski season ended early, restaurants closed, and hotels emptied.
The jobs that are created and sustained by this bill as we recover from the pandemic will be a vital component of our overall economic recovery, as Americans get back to work and back to playing after they've worked so hard. Working hard and playing hard, two great American values.
And so I hope as we have this vote tonight on cloture, I hope my colleagues will support this motion tonight to support our public lands and the communities that sustain them by supporting the Great American Outdoors Act.
And I’ll leave it with this. Enos Mills, one of the fathers of Rocky Mountain National Park, once said this about our public lands: “The trail compels you to know yourself and to be yourself and puts you in harmony with the universe. It makes you glad to be living. It gives you health, hope, and courage. And it extends that touch of nature which tends to make you kind.”
I can think of no better piece of legislation on our public lands than to work our way to find a little bit more kindness, a little bit more hope, a little bit more strength, and a great deal of opportunity.